|Sharon and I on a summer float down the Caney|
"Oh really?" Aunt Ru says while looking out the window of our 1964 Chevy van at the river we had just crossed over.
Mom continues, "Yes, but of course it is much smaller down here because we are below the dam."
"Wow!" Ru says without much expression in her voice.
My sister whispered to me, "Do you think she's forgotten about last year when Pop did it?"
The year before Aunt Ru was visiting with us for the Christmas holiday and on our way from the airport we crossed the Caney Fork river five times, as always. At each bridge Pop would share his little nugget of information about how the Caney Fork is the river that is dammed to make Center Hill lake, which was our back yard. Within a ten mile stretch of I-40 each time we crossed the river he would repeat the exact same thing and to our youthful surprise, so would Aunt Ru. On the last bridge we all died laughing as she realized the broken record that she and Pop had been playing.
Well sure enough, a year later and Mom got her too. At least on two of the bridges before she caught on. It became a tradition from then on, with Aunt Ru as well as anytime we crossed that river together and alone. Even now some thirty three years later my mind still repeats it and makes me smile each time I cross that beautiful river.
As a man at 46, it amazes me how that one body of water has been a compass point along my path for so long. It has been pulling me here my whole life. I remember the many trips as a kid that we would take from the Cabin into Nashville and I would stare out the window and somehow seem to loose myself in the rolling hills of Smith County. As we wound our way off the Cumberland Plateau and crossed the first bridge over the Caney, I always looked up river and focused on the old steel railroad bridge which magically seemed to spark my daydreams. My eyes would gloss over and slowly I emerged myself into the world of hollows and mountain pastures and hillside farms. By the third bridge I knew to look off to the right side at the little farmhouse that was set in the perfect valley and I saw myself there working the land. That was me on the tractor mowing the field. On the last bridge I would look back to the right, down at the rapids and imagine floating the river and what it would feel like to let the current take me. I became Tom Sawyer and stood on my boat made of tied together logs and would float all the way to where the Caney reaches the Cumberland River and where the Cumberland joins the Mississippi all the way out to sea.
Sometimes my daydream would end abruptly when my sister would yell out "Mountain Goat!". They lived along the bluffs and were very mysterious to us. Sometimes I wondered if they only appeared to my sister and I. We would drive on past with both our noses stuck to the window looking up at the old gray goat with narley looking horns. He would glance down at us with his wise eyes as if he was granting us passage through his kingdom.
After leaving home, making my first college attempt and settling into an apartment in Nashville, the Caney Fork River and the Smith County line became a finish line of sorts. Perhaps more like a beginning line. Each time I would leave the crazy world of trying to make it in Nashville and head back to the cabin to visit with Mom something would change inside as soon as the first hill rose out from the ground of the Nashville basin. By the time I crossed the first Caney bridge my breath changed and the windows went down. A sense of peace eased through my mind and each time I looked out and saw that old familiar railroad bridge, I would return to that place inside that said to keep dreaming.
I was on my way to play a music gig in middle Tennessee and had my guitar, keyboards and all my equipment in the back of my gray 1976 Honda Civic. It was my first car and I had just taken the last pennies out of my checking account to have the oil changed before my 200 mile journey. Right when I rolled over that first hill on I-40 that lets you know that the Cumberland foothills are around the corner my oil light came on. "That's strange. I just had it filled. I guess it's just something else not working right in this old beat up hatchback." I affirm myself and drive on. I start noticing that I was loosing power and then the most god-awful sound ever came from the engine. Metal on metal. I pulled over and opened the hood, checked the oil and it was dry as a bone. In complete despair I pushed the car further off the road and leaned up against the road sign that says "Welcome to Smith County" and started praying.
Someone stopped and pushed me and my car on the side of the interstate for ten miles up to the Gordonsville exit and into a gas station parking lot. I did get a lift back to Nashville with all my stuff, though my car lived at that exit for over three years.
I bet that ole' wise mountain goat was probably sitting up on a cliff nearby looking down at me saying "What else do I have to do to make you realize that this is where you should be?"
Today the river is my play ground. Nestled in the beautiful foothills of Smith County is my home. The water I drink comes from the river. There's no better day than a warm summer afternoon floating in a Canoe with my wife Sharon. Our freezer is full with Rainbow trout that swam in the Caney. I've made countless wonderful memories taking family and friends fishing on this river and my favorite spot and fishing hole..... just so happens to be right below that old steel railroad bridge.